Residents and visitors swam at their own risk at Oahu beaches Thursday after city officials instructed lifeguards not to go to their observation tower stations over concerns that they could be exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The city attempted to close some beaches and beach parks, but many beachgoers made it to the water, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
“Honolulu Ocean Safety is not on duty today due to a safety stand down,” Emergency Services Director Jim Howe said in a statement Thursday. “The lifeguards need to be properly equipped with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) as they may come into contact with infected persons while administering medical treatment.”
The move followed an announcement by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Wednesday that city parks, including beach parks and bathrooms there, would be closed Thursday. However, it was unclear whether the order applied to beaches that aren’t part of parks or generally known to be part of parks.
Under Hawaii law, people are allowed to traverse a park, even when closed, to access the beach. Additionally, the sandy area of beaches between the water and the “high water mark” of the sand is state jurisdiction, making it problematic for police or lifeguards to tell people they cannot go onto the sand and into the ocean.
Many beachgoers were unaware that beaches were closed.
Nathan Serota, city Parks and Recreation Department spokesman, said all parks facilities — including the comfort stations and parking lots within them — remain closed.
“Yes, by law, you are allowed to traverse a park even when it is closed, in order to access the beach,” he said in an email. “You may not stay in the park.”
“The goal of these closures is to minimize large gatherings of people and encourage social distancing,” he continued. “Police can cite you for remaining in a park, but normally they warn park goers first to give them an opportunity to leave. We don’t want people getting cited for this, but we have to take precautions to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
At Sandy Beach, perhaps the most dangerous in the state, Kjell Haakon, a visitor from Denmark, was frolicking in the shallow wash of 3- to 4-foot shore-break waves with his wife and three children, ages 7 to 18.
“We passed this beach, we saw lots of people and it looks like fun waves, so we thought, let’s go try them for a while,” Haakon said.
After feeling the power of the waves and being advised of the danger by a regular wave rider at Sandy’s, Haakon gathered up his family and headed for the parking lot.
“He said, ‘Guys, if there had been a lifeguard here, he would have told you to get out of the water,’” Haakon recounted.
Back on the shore, a family of eight from Ohio received similar advice but decided to wade in anyway.
Tom Brink, a visitor from Los Angeles, pulled up in a Camero with his wife intending to go snorkeling at Sandy’s until some kamaaina bodysurfers parked next to him let Brink know that the couple should visit a safer beach, perhaps in Waimanalo.
“I think it’s bad management,” Brink said of the city not clearly closing beaches where lifeguard stations are empty.
Casey Levins, a veteran bodyboarder at Sandy’s, said police showed up at about 6 a.m. and politely chased everyone out before stringing a line of police tape across the main entrance to the parking lot.
That tape, however, was soon broken and on the ground without any resumed police presence at least over the next several hours.
By about 9 a.m. about 50 people were at the beach, and that grew to about 250 people by 11 a.m.
Levins said the situation was dangerous.
“Lifeguards need to be here,” he said. “We have a lot of inexperienced people in the ocean with no warning signs. This is not really well thought out. I understand why they want to do this, but the police can’t keep up with it.”
It appeared that efforts to close beach parks were inconsistent. There was no evidence of police tape at Waimanalo Beach Park, Kaiona Beach Park in Waimanalo or Makapuu Beach Park — all of which were filled with beachgoers.
The Makapuu Lookout, which is part of the state park system, was open. Yet police put tape across the parking entryways of the nearby Halona Blow Hole Lookout and Lanai Lookout, which are designated city parks.
Sightseers parked on the side of Kalanianaole Highway and occasionally blocked traffic to sneak in to see the blowhole.
“Not a parking area,” one police officer called out over his squad car loudspeaker before another officer parked at the entryway to prevent people from stopping.
Around the same time, the Lanai Lookout filled with sightseers after the tape had been dislodged.
At Ala Moana Regional Park on Thursday morning, Honolulu police officers were seen asking parkgoers to leave.
“This is a whole new world that we’re going into,” Howe said. “People should not be at the beach. … This is a time to hunker down, be at home.”
Shayne Enright, Honolulu Emergency Services Department spokeswoman, said that starting Friday, rather than work out of towers, lifeguards will be in trucks, and some will have rescue watercraft that will either patrol or post at crowded beaches.
The city has 212 full-time lifeguards and 35 contract ones, she said.
“If someone is in distress in the ocean or on the beach, the public should call 911,” Enright said. “Ocean Safety dispatchers will dispatch lifeguards along with, if necessary, all of the first responders. We do this during hurricanes and similar natural disasters, when there are park closures.”
Enright said emergency services did not receive any ocean-related calls Thursday.
As part of the city’s order to close parks and beach parks, bathrooms at these places were locked, leaving some beachgoers to relieve themselves in public.